About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: 1960 - Early Times

It may be appropriate for white historian to become rather more curious about their own collective pasts, not so much I the spirit of mea culpa as with a view to recognising themselves as historical agents and products. It must be possible to own one's history, though not necessarily to identify with it.

Saul Dubow

"Illicit Union: Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa"1

The following survey of race relations for the period October 1952 to September 1953 does not make the happiest reading. It is true that in some fields significant measures have been introduced to improve the conditions of living of our Non-European people: for example, many municipalities have made imaginative and strenuous efforts to deal with the housing position and they and their Managers of Non-European Affairs are to be congratulated on this; Non-European education has advanced another measured step; an organized system of labour bureau is being set up', and the dire health needs of the Non-European people arc being recognized increasingly. There are also many indications that the general European public arc more aware of the dangers and difficulties of the situation and that Non-Europeans are increasingly anxious to be given the opportunity to help themselves. Yet the survey has to report the riots of last October and November, serious curtailments of civil liberties and fundamental freedoms, a constitutional struggle centering in the attempt to deprive the Cape Coloured of common franchise rights, an increased legislative drive towards further discriminatory segregation, and the engendering of greater distrust between Black and white.

In all this we see the contradiction with which white South Africans live and have lived over the centuries, - their sense of right and justice has driven them to give with one hand; their fears have made them take away with the other. While this policy has enabled a certain inter-racial stability to be maintained in the past, it is unlikely that this will be maintained to any significant degree in the future, for it has to be realized that the conditions of the twentieth century are not those of the nineteenth. The emphasis in the racial situation has shifted from the welfare, educational and economic to the political, and it will be the course of wise statesmanship to recognise this and to secure for South Africa internal peace and freedom from external danger in the future.

Governments' are elected to ensure that citizens can trust one another, have peace and prosperity, have dignity and opportunity: the legislative measures of 1952-1953 are not conducive to this end.

Force of circumstances will no doubt lead to an increase in positive action and to modification of the negative or deleterious measures which have been taken. The Group Areas Act is to be modified; difficulties have been found in its application, and the Land Tenure Board has not yielded to the many unjust suggestions put before it. Shortage of labour is already modifying the traditional labour pattern of the country. The desire to exploit the African consumer market is already inducing changes of altitude. Africans are in urban areas to stay: Indians will not be expatriated. European racial attitudes are changing and the courageous emergence of a group bound to a qualified franchise for Non -Europeans is symptomatic of new thinking and new forces. 'The younger generation is unwilling to accept the straitjacket in which many of the older generation wish to confine it. Travel and international contact are having their effect. The Dutch Reformed Church is courageously facing the logic of its own beliefs. Non-European leaders are not intransigent in their attitudes.

To some ears this may sound optimistic, but my own belief is that there arc in South Africa forces, spiritual and material, so strong that the constant adjustments that have to be made in a young, changing society will be made, and that policies born of the weakness which is fear will give way to policies and actions based on the strength of faith and courage.

South Africa Institute of Race Relations 1953/4

After WW11, which brought about a huge shift in the balance of world power, the old colonial powers -- now mostly former powers either defeated or depleted of resources to run their own countries -- began to withdraw from Africa, either voluntarily or after prolonged wars with indigenous liberation movements or because the cost of running colonies outweighed the benefits of staying. In the post world -war era, the newly formed United Nations, with a Charter recognizing the universal rights of individuals to the franchise and human rights, cast a cold eye on the suppression of indigenous peoples in Africa.

Even as the struggle to overthrow the colonial master continued, liberation movements claiming to be the authentic voice of the masses emerged from different ideological, political, and ethnic backgrounds & competed among themselves for the support of the masses. Before liberation was achieved, the would-be liberators were frequently at odds with each other to determine which would grab the reins of power once the colonizer threw in the towel and left them to their own devices. Concepts such as democracy, free elections, power sharing and the like were even more alien than the rule of the colonial imposters. Some were imbued with Marxist/socialist dogma, some with African nationalism & some simply wanted to rid themselves of their colonial masters using whatever means were necessary. In many, civil conflict erupted when the colonial power withdrew. Different ethnic groups, once united in struggle against the perceived common oppressor now fought one another as each tried to usurp the position of the departing colonial power. And in some, the loss of life in these internal conflicts far exceeded the life lost in the struggles to drive the colonial powers out.

The fact that such havoc ensued was predictable: the structures of colonization operated on the principle that in order to rule one must divide. Hence the sowing of divisions among different ethnic groups -- giving a little here and taking a little there created ambiences of sufficient conflict and competition for meager enrichments -- enabled the imperial power to establish total control without having to expend a lot of resources. Keeping the "native" in his place was easy enough to do, since the "native" had nowhere else to go. Well-meaning missionaries from the Christian Churches also competed to establish spiritual supremacy. And once having "captured' the souls of the people the imperial powers followed, capturing "hearts and minds," sometimes quietly, and sometimes only after resistance.

The 19th century imperial powers could not foresee and did not care -- that European notions of governance established by imperial occupation did not easily transpose themselves into forms of government that were appropriate for post colonial government in Africa, where traditions of governance based on ethnicity & communalism, which did not conform with a foreign concept -- the western ideal of the nation-state -- were the cultural norm. Indeed, at the dawn of the 21st century, tribal loyalty still flourishes & is often used as a mechanism to fuel division and foment conflict by hegemonic forces from within and non-state political actors.

When the "winds of change" swept across the continent in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, four problems emerged after indigenous liberation movements assumed power.

First, African colonies had been administered rather than governed by the metropolis. Departing colonial powers left no bodies of governance structures in place -- in the sense of their being a set of institutional structures that would constitute the foundations upon which the now sovereign country could build its sense of national identity, a necessary component of nation building. Second, the structures left in place were European structures, embodying European cultural and value systems that were not apposite to African cultural and value systems, and hence neither easily adaptable nor even appropriate building blocks for the new states to use as "models" for creating institutions of governance. Third, the perquisites for building nation-states that had evolved from the European experience could not be superimposed and were more often than not incongruent with the geography of the political space that the newly liberated countries occupied. And fourth, where attempts were made to adapt European models, the results were less than successful, invariably clashing with the traditions of ethnic structures built on tribal forms of governance that were -- and in many cases continue to be --alien to the western way of doing things.


The origins of apartheid are linked to a dispute on whom, where, and when: Who arrived first, when they arrived, and where they arrived in South Africa.

For millennia, the San, small groups of hunter-gathers who moved their territories in search of game & plant foods, inhabited the southern end of Africa. About 2000 years ago the Khoikhoi, a group from further north, settled in the same area. The Khoikhoi were pastoralists who acquired & raised livestock. In time ownership of livestock became the measure of one's status. And in time the San & the Khoikhoi came into conflict with each other over use of scarce resources.

White mythology, however, is that Europeans and Africans arrived at roughly the same time: This allowed whites to claim that territorial segregation, one of the main platforms of apartheid, was justified. In reality, Africans had already settled in much of what comprises South Africa today, but realities are the sum of perceptions. Unfortunately, the mathematics of addition is rarely uniformly agreed upon.

The first Dutch settlers arrived in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company founded a trading post at the Cape of Good Hope. But the Dutch were not the first to drop anchor at the Cape. Between the Portuguese voyages of the late 1400s and Jan van Riebeeck's 150 years later, many ships, mainly English & Dutch, rested over before continuing their voyages to the East. The Dutch, however, were the first to establish a permanent settlement. Within years they were asserting claims over Khoikhoi groups & although many groups resisted, resistance was overcome, mainly by force. With the settlement, slavery followed. Within years, thousands of slaves poured into the new colony mostly from the Indonesian archipelago, Bengal, South India Sri Lanka, Madagascar & the East Africa coast. In 1717 there were about 2 500 slaves on the Cape, almost 17 000 in 1795, and when slavery ended in 1834 the number had grown to 36 000.

In 1795 the British, overran the Dutch in the Cape colony, and although they lost it in 1803, they regained it again in 1806.

Ironically, the carrying of pass books, opposition to which became one of the rallying foci for opposition to apartheid in the second half of the 20th century, actually dates to the first years of the 19th century. In 1809, the British passed the first in a series to facilitate the descendents of the Dutch, who had over a period of 150 years carved out a new identity for themselves now "Afrikaners," or "Boers," they had developed a hybrid Dutch language -- Afrikaans. Every Hottentot (or Khoikhoi) had to have a "fixed place of abode" and if he wished to move he had to obtain 'a pass from his master or from a local official.'

In 1836, five thousand Boers, later known as voortrekkers, resentful of British rule and fearful they would lose their language and culture to British hegemony, left the Cape colony, and embarked on a journey, referred to as the Great Trek in Afrikaner history, into the hinterlands in search of new territory. Afrikaner commandos defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, when the Boers made their Covenant with God that if they won they would hold the land for posterity. The Great Trek and the Battle of Blood River are the founding myths of Afrikaner nationalism, with their insinuation that Afrikaners were a chosen people, somehow divinely anointed; that they were, in fact, the instrument of God's will.

The period from 1652 to 1902 was a time when what is today South Africa was torn by violent conflict. African fought African for territory one Nguni state, the Ndwandwe under Zwide against another, the looser Mthethwa confederacy under Dingiswayo. Shaka slaughtered his way to power, consolidating the Zulu kingdom, and the Mfecane enveloped large parts of southern Africa. At the same time Africans fought Whites who were annexing their lands. White fought White, as British and Boers fought for territory, and at the same time, Whites fought Africans as they pushed the frontiers back and laid claim to the new lands they had invaded.

On the eastern Cape Afrikaners and Xhosa engaged in intense struggle but in 1811 the British intervened with a military campaign against the Xhosa that devastated their lands in the Zuurveld. It was a systematic onslaught that was followed by the war of 1834 -35, more conflict, the War of the Axe in 1844 in which the Xhosa used a scorched earth tactic of their own, burning all the grass in the battle zone, causing hundreds of cattle & horses to die of starvation. But in the end the Xhosa could not maintain their offensive the Xhosa themselves began to starve to death & resistance collapsed in 1847.

In 1843, Britain annexed the Natal and in the 1850s, it recognized the South Africa Republic (formerly the Transvaal, now Gauteng) and the Orange Free State (now the Free State) as Afrikaner States. In 1879, the British were defeated by the Zulus under Cetshwayo at Isandhlwana a defeat that reverberated throughout the Empire. But in 1887, the British annexed Zululand. The cohesion & identity of a Zulu nation, nevertheless, endured.

In 1887, Britain annexed the Transvaal, but the Afrikaners regained their independence in 1881. In 1886, gold mining began on the Witswatersrand and Britain rethought its position.

Between 1899 and 1902, Britain conquered the Boer republics in a savage guerrilla war during which some 30,000 Afrikaner women and children died in British concentration camps. The war left the Afrikaners with a historical legacy of having fought for their freedom against a rapacious imperialism, affirmed their claim to the land for which they had endured so much suffering, and cast them in the role of victim, a role that accounts for much of the non-compromising self-righteousness that is the hallmark of Afrikaner nationalism. Later it would be used to confirm Afrikaners in their view of history: That they had fought Africans for virgin lands that belonged to neither Africans nor Whites; that they had been dispossessed by the British; that they had struggled greatly to hold on to their liberty. It was a history that denied an African dimension.


In 1910, the British, now colonial masters of all, brought the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State together to form the Union of South Africa, a white controlled, and self-governing British dominion. In other words, the British "created" the country called South Africa, an entity hitherto unknown to the populations in the vast heterogeneous area upon which no government had ever stamped its undisputed authority or for which no government could legitimately claim to speak.

A country, however, is not a nation.

After 1910, racial discrimination was institutionalized -- a practice that was not a unique characteristic practice of the Union government, but rather one that was a common among the colonizing powers of Europe. Until the end of World War 11 and the world order that had underpinned it, colonialism and segregation, reinforced by racist assumptions, prevailed not only throughout Africa, but also in much of Asia, the Caribbean, the United States and Europe.

The Union government enacted racial benchmarks within three years. The constitution stipulated that only whites could sit in parliament. The Mines and Works Act (1911) ensured that whites would have a monopoly of skilled jobs and provide for other forms of whit job reservation; the Immigrants restriction Act (1911) confined Indians to their province of domicile; the Native labour Regulation Act (1911) made strikes by Africans a criminal offence; the Native Land Act (1913) which set aside 7.3% of the total land area of South Africa as reserves to accommodate the "Native" population (1913) became the cornerstone of territorial segregation; the Native Affairs Act (1913) established tribal councils for the administration of the reserves and advisory councils for Africans in urban areas.; the Education Proclamation No.55 (1921) made provision for some funding of missionary schools for non-Whites schools as long as they adhered to government regulations; the Apprenticeship Act (1922) made it impossible for most Africans to be apprenticed since they did not have the means to meet the required educational level; the Native Urban Areas Act no 21 (1923) was designed to control the influx of Africans into urban areas; And on it went, a continuous series of legislative and executive measures aimed at controlling the lives of Black people and restricting the size of African urban populations to meet the service and industrial needs of white communities.

But the economy's performance could not "lift" all whites. Thus you had, on the one hand, a white community able to "maintain a standard of living approximating rather to that of America than to Europe, in a country that [was] poorer than most of the countries in Central Europe, solely because they have at their disposal these masses of docile, low paid labourers." On the other hand, by making manual jobs unavailable to whites, whites who were not able to hold more responsible jobs, mostly Afrikaners, were deprived of any means of employment. A study by the Carnegie Commission in 1932 found that of 1.8 million whites, 300,000, mostly all Afrikaners, could be classified as very poor. The number of poor Blacks was never, of course, enumerated. Poverty, after all, was their God-assigned lot.

The commission attached much of the cause to poor education and reluctance to take "Kaffir" jobs, the only jobs they were "competent" to hold. The belief that Whites were superior as a race to Blacks was so deeply embedded in White consciousness that many would rather live in conditions of poverty rather than hold jobs that were classified as requiring the most African mental capacity could, supposedly, offer. You were, no matter how poor you were, a member of the ruling class i.e. the superior group despite your economic deprivation.

The National Party (NP) founded in 1914, a mere ten years after the end of the Second Boer War, became the instrument for mobilizing Afrikaners to protect and advance their interests in the face of the Anglicization of South Africa's political and social institutions. The Afrikaner's bitter resentment of the British did not dissolve with the formation of the Union. Afrikaners, especially poor Afrikaners, felt marginalized in the new dispensation, and this sense of alienation contributed enormously to the growth of a distinct Afrikaner national consciousness forging an Afrikaner identity based on a distinctive spoken language, a common religious faith, and a shared historical past.

The NP opted for a policy of separatism from English speaking whites, and disassociation from the empire until such time as Afrikaner political and economic power equaled or surpassed that of the English. However, it should be noted that the notorious Natives Land Act (1913) limiting African ownership of the land to the reserves -- the beginning of a series of segregation laws was not passed by an Afrikaner dominated parliament, but by the South African Party, a coalition of both Afrikaners and English whites, led by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts,

When FW de Klerk appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he put the Afrikaner's "side of the story." "In brief," he said, "the central theme of the history of the Afrikaans people, almost since its arrival at the Cape has been its wish to rule itself; to defend its right to religious freedom and to maintain and develop its own cultural heritage and identity."

It was this desire that led to its first clashes with the Dutch East India Company and, after the arrival of the British, motivated a large part of its people to migrate from the Cape Colony into the interior.

It was this desire that led the Afrikaners to establish their own independent republics in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and twice to defend their independence - at enormous cost - against the mightiest imperial power of the time. After its defeat at the beginning of this century, it was this desire that led Afrikaners to rebuild their people, to nurture their young language and culture; and to regain their right to full national self-determination, embodied in the ideal of the re-establishment of a Republic.

The National Party was founded in the second decade of this century to act as the political vehicle for the realization of these goals. Its election victory in 1948 enabled it to implement its programme, which culminated in the establishment of a Republic in 1961.

As far as relations with the other peoples of South Africa were concerned, the National Party believed initially that its interests could be best served by following a policy of "separateness" - or apartheid. It felt that, only in this manner, would the whites in general - and Afrikaners in particular - avoid being overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of the Black peoples of our country. Only in this manner would they be able to maintain their own identity and their right to rule themselves. It persuaded itself that such a policy was morally defensible and in the interest of the other peoples of South Africa, because any other course would inevitably lead to inter-racial conflict.

But the NP's perceptions of the conflict evolved over time as circumstances in South Africa and the world changed. Thus, de Klerk could demarcate four phases in the NP's history after it came to power in 1948.

The first period of rigid apartheid, between 1948 and 1960, was marked by the adoption of comprehensive segregation and security legislation and by the campaign for the establishment of a republic. This period was characterised by a determination to implement the Party's cultural, social and political/ agenda; by strict anti-Communism; and by a paternalistic approach to the other peoples of South Africa which was a reflection of the racial attitudes that prevailed at that time throughout much of the European dominated world and in the southern states of the United States. By the early 'fifties, the strict racial segregation that the National Party had inherited from the past, had been firmly institutionalized. Those in the Black community - such as the ANC and the Congress Movement - who were demanding full democratic rights - were regarded as agitators and communist revolutionaries.

The second period of apartheid - or separate development - occurred between 1960 and 1978, during which the Government attempted to achieve a constitutional settlement through the establishment and development of Black national states and also during which South Africa experienced growing international isolation. This approach was not without idealism. Afrikaners thought that that they could solve the complex problems that confronted us by giving each of the ten distinguishable Black South African nations self-government and independence within the core areas that they had traditionally occupied. In this way we would create commonwealth of South African states - each independent, but all co-operating on a confederal basis with one another within an economic common market.

The underlying principle of territorial partition to assure self-determination for different peoples living in a common area is widely accepted. It was inter alia the basis for the creation of the nation states that emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War and for modern Pakistan and India after the Second World War. Today, complex ethnic maps are the basis for the peace proposals in Israel/Palestine and Bosnia.

Mr. de Klerk insisted that that although Afrikaners were primarily concerned with maintaining their own right to self-determination, it would be a mistake to think that there was not a strong element of idealism in their vision.

Ten capital cities were built in the ten states that had been identified, each with its own parliament, quite impressive government buildings and bureaucracy. Several well endowed universities were founded - which were formerly dismissed as "bush colleges" - but which are now accepted as fully fledged universities. By 1975 some 77 new towns had been established and 130 204 new houses had been built. Between 1952 and 1972 the number of hospital beds in the homelands increased from some 5 000 to 34 689. Decentralized industries were developed and hundreds of millions of rands were pumped into the traditional areas in a futile attempt to stem the flood of people to the supposedly "white" cities.

The third period was one of reform between 1978 and 1990, during which most of the ANC's struggle to end apartheid took place, 'much of the apartheid system was dismantled, the electoral base was broadened, and negotiations were initiated.'

After the manifest failure of separate development, the main focus in the National Party shifted toward the search for alternative constitutional models that would enable those who held power to accommodate the social, economic and political realities that confronted them without sacrificing the right of white South Africans and other minorities to continue to manage and decide on what was referred to as "own affairs". In security affairs the main concern was to protect the state from a concerted national and international revolutionary onslaught.

"From as early as 1978 the National Party began with its own tentative process of reform - starting with the important labour reforms that emerged from the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission.

By the late seventies it was accepted that adequate constitutional provision would also have to be made for the Coloured and Indian communities, which did not have any identifiable homelands. The President's Council was established to look into this and other constitutional questions. Their recommendations ultimately led to the adoption of the tricameral constitution in 1983 in terms of which white, coloured and Indian South Africans were given the opportunity of electing their own houses of Parliament and of administering their 'own affairs', while power was shared with regard to matters of common interest."

By the end of 1986 the National Party Government had repealed some 100 discriminatory laws, including many laws such as the Pass Laws that had constituted cornerstones of the policy of apartheid.

By 1987 it had established fully representative Black local authorities. In 1988 nation-wide elections were held for Black local authorities.

De Klerk:

This new direction was given further definition at the 1986 congress of the National Party which officially accepted 'one citizenship for all South Africans' and the implication that 'any discrimination on the ground of colour, race and cultural affiliation or religion' would have to be eliminated. However, the Party still believed that political rights should be exercised on a group basis. One of the points of departure for its 1987 programme of action was the continued protection of group rights: ' This must be done on the basis of the maximum degree of self-determination for each group, and joint responsibility on matters of common interest, in such a way that the domination of one group over others be eliminated.' During the national elections of 1987 the National Party sought, and was granted, a mandate by the electorate to pursue and implement such a constitutional programme.

By the end of the1980's it had become evident that the only possible solution to the constitutional impasse lay in negotiations between all South Africa's major parties, aimed at the establishment of a fully inclusive non-racial democracy. This was a difficult and far-reaching decision for those in power - and especially for Afrikaner nationalists":

It meant that they would have to give up the right to alone govern those parts of the country where they had exercised power and that they considered to be theirs, for which they, as a small people, had struggled for hundreds of years. No other nation in the world has ever voluntarily made such a decision. Nonetheless the majority of white South Africans did so.

It meant that instead of putting their faith in their own institutions and in their own ability to defend themselves, they now had to put their trust in negotiated constitutional agreements. They did so in a continent that was not renowned for the success of its constitutional experiments.


The ANC, founded in 1912 by African intellectuals, wanted to ameliorate the Africans' economic plight and to secure the extension of political rights, especially the voting franchise, to all races. The ANC became the oldest, broad-based liberation movement in Africa. For 82 years it weathered every effort of the South African state to defeat it, and remained indomitable in its struggle for a non-racial democracy.

African response to the policies of the Union government were limited and accommodating in the sense that it wanted to become part of the existing political social order, not to overthrow it. Thus the ANC went to lengths to assure the government that it wanted to cooperate with it in finding ways to give expression to African political aspirations, that it was willing to be co-opted into the existing political framework provided that co-option would include participation in governance. The fact that there was a certain tentativeness, even deference, in its approach to government should not obscure the radical step the congress itself represented. The ANC was the first liberation movement in Africa that demanded that Africans have a voice in elected governments, measures unheard of in colonial Africa and unthinkable in its metropoles.

Not surprisingly, the leadership of the ANC reflected the interests that underlined its formation. Members came from the small African petty bourgeoisie and traditional chiefs concerned about the availability of land to Africans. They had, for the most part, a Christian education and espoused corresponding social mores and values. Indeed their values and those of the ruling classes were similar. In keeping with the times, they saw their task as one of persuading the 'civilized' British that there was a place in South Africa's governance for 'civilized', educated, property-owning Africans. They, too, could be absorbed into the mainstream. They would settle for a limited franchise. From the beginning, however, it denounced tribalism and ethnicity, stressing that Africans were one people and that if they stood united as one people their demands would be met. It understood that unity was strength. It was committed to non-violence and to the use of constitutional means to achieve its goals, much in the spirit of Gandhi who served as the model for constitutional crusading.

However, unlike Gandhi, the ANC did not resort to mass mobilization for decades depending on representations to either the British government or the South African government. Like Gandhi, they appealed initially to the British government on the basis of a shared Britishness, as 'loyal British subjects of the Crown.' When it became clear that the British would not interfere and that the South African government was simply ignoring its presentations, the Congress lost much of its sense of purpose by 1919 and "literally began to fall apart." No attempt was made to mobilize the masses. Throughout the 1930s it engaged in routine protests whenever a piece of discriminatory legislation was passed, but its impact was negligible, and it lapsed into a state of semi paralysis. It continued to identify itself more with the interests of the governing elites and not with African workers and the unemployed. It continued to eschew mass mobilization. It continued to ignore rural Africans. By 1949, the ANC could claim fewer than 2,800 members hardly a thriving movement leading the masses to the liberation they clamored for. The problem, in fact, was the absence of clamoring.

But even in its quest for a non-racial society, the ANC, too, practiced racialism since membership was limited to Africans. Membership of the ANC in exile was not opened to Indians, Coloureds and whites until 1969. Non-Africans could not become members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) until 1985 when elections for the governing structure were held for the first time. Innumerable good reasons are given for this trajectory, but choice on the basis of race is racism. Whether there is justifiable racism and non-justifiable racism is another matter.

In its submission to the TRC, the ANC set out their perceptions of the conflict:

From the start the ANC's core principles were to promote unity, counter racism and work towards equal rights for all South Africans. Its formation was a direct response to the 1910 Act of Union, which excluded Black South Africans from citizenship rights, and constitutionally entrenched minority rule. At the time one of the early activists warned with great foresight: "Equal Rights ... is the motto that will yet float at the masthead of the new ship of state which has been launched under the Union, and no other will be permanently substituted while there is one Black or Coloured man of any consequence or self-respect in the country, or any white man who respects the traditions of free government - so help us God."

Accordingly, to protect the interests of the disenfranchised in the Union, the ANC formed itself as a "Native Parliament".

It consistently tried to promote the interests of Africans to oppose "by just means" the Colour bar, and to call for "equitable representation" in Parliament and the extension of political and civil rights regardless of race. In a real sense its formation sowed the seeds which reached fruition with the creation of a united South African nation in 1994

In the early decades of its existence, the ANC was conspicuously committed to act within the law; its methods strictly constitutional - petitions, legal suits, and deputations - even though its representations consistently fell on deaf ears. Influenced by the international struggle against fascism, the growth of anti-colonial movements in other countries, the formation of the United Nations Organisation and both the intransigence of those in power in South Africa and a growing mood of resistance amongst the Black majority, the ANC became more assertive in its demands from the Second World War onwards. The ANC's historic Africans' Claims document of 1943 underlined support for the Atlantic Charter adopted by the Allies as a guide to the creation of a new post-war world order and included a Bill of Rights for South Africa which would ensure full citizenship rights for all - the first such document in our country's history.

In 1949 the ANC adopted a Programme of Action, which sought to realize the above objectives, using methods of direct action such as boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience if necessary. In the Defiance Campaign of 1952 over 8,000 people were arrested for deliberately contravening apartheid laws. The Defiance Campaign won mass popular support for the movement and was followed by other protest campaigns in the 1950s - against Bantu Education, against the introduction of passes for women, against farm labour conditions, and against the destruction of Sophiatown.

The militancy that started to take root in this decade was essentially in response to intensified oppression and repression introduced by the NP government. Instructively, the decade opened with the killing by police of 18 Africans on 1 May 1950.5 This trend was to continue, culminating in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

Former ANC President Oliver Tambo's observation in 1983 'captured not only the essence of this period, but also brings out in bold relief the paradigm of debates in later years and even today:'

The ANC was non-violent for a whole decade in the face of violence against African civilians...No one refers to Africans as civilians and they have been victims of shootings all the time. Even children - they have been killed in the hundreds. Yet the word has not been used in all these years.... But implicit in the practice of the South African regime is that when you shoot an African, you are not killing a civilian".

In 1955, the ANC and its allies convened the Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter:

[It was] a powerful call for equal political and civil rights, as well as basic economic and social welfare provisions. Once again the ANC was the first to outline a clear alternative programme, based on non-racialism and universally accepted human rights principles, in opposition to the short-sighted and discriminatory policies of the National Party government.

Despite the new militancy of the 1950s, the ANC remained committed to non-violent, legal forms of struggle. Its dedication to political reform by persuasion rather than by violent means was most memorably, stated by Chief Albert Luthuli in 1952: "In so far as gaining citizenship rights and opportunities for the unfettered development of the African people, who will deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently and modestly at a closed and barred door?"

Five years later, when he wrote to Prime Minister Strijdom, urging the calling of "a multi-racial convention to seek a solution to our pressing national problems", he reiterated that the ANC "has always sought to achieve its objectives by using non-violent methods. In it's most militant activities [the ANC] has never used nor attempted to use physical force. It has used non-violent means and ways recognised as legitimate in the civilised world, especially in the case of a people, such as we are, who find themselves denied all effective constitutional means of voicing themselves".


If it is to be properly understood, the pattern of South African politics between 1960 and 1993, including the massive violations of human rights by the apartheid regime and the forms of struggle adopted by the liberation movement, need to be located within this historical context.

Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.


Following WW 11 as a new world order emerged, now dominated by the US & the USSR, both of whom opposed European colonialism, the process of decolonization of Africa began to take shape. South Africa, however, began to fortify itself against the consequences of the new order. In keeping with what had been pervasive colonial practice, most whites, both English and Afrikaners, lived apart from the Black population, especially from the African majority. Apartheid merely gave a more severe legislative face to existing practice. English speaking whites -- who continued to be the most privileged group even after apartheid became the policy of the Afrikaner government were quick to realize that that economic power counted for a lot more than whatever privileges an antediluvian polity might offer. They were more likely in future years to object not to the fact of apartheid, but to its excesses, to be sufficiently tolerant of its practice until the practice became bad for business. They, too, wanted to maintain a colonial lifestyle, despite decolonization. But there was a more important difference between the English speaking whites and their Afrikaner speaking counterparts.

Afrikaners, in the event of Blacks asserting their right to independence, as other colonized African states did after WW11, did not have the option of English whites of either moving back to the mother country or staying. Algeria, for example, had France; Kenya and Rhodesia had Britain; and Mozambique and Angola had Portugal; and when independence came, their white minorities had an option.

In South Africa the situation was different. The Afrikaners had no mother country to which they could return. South Africa was their country. They asserted an equal or superior claim to the territory, although they would not share power with the Black majority, even on an unequal basis, when the rest of Africa had completed the process of decolonization.

The Afrikaners were obsessed with the volk, the idea of an Afrikaner nation, defined by language, religion and culture, which were as alien to English speaking whites as Zulu speaking Africans were to the Afrikaners. In Afrikaner eyes, the English were imperialists who had destroyed the volk. At best they could aspire to be 'associate' members of an Afrikaner volk, tolerated as long as they accepted the standards of the volk. Africans, on the other hand, were seen in a different light. They, too, were an agglomeration of nations, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, etc, each with its own language, culture and tribal customs, lumped together as Bantu. But they were nations, albeit nations at a much lower level of development.

Industrialization began to threaten and then undermine traditional notions of white supremacy. Manufacturing, located in urban areas, devoured cheap African labor at an exponential rate. Hence the need to have Africans in close proximity to white cities and towns, i.e. economic integration. The result was a combination of massive rural impoverishment as Africans left the land, overcrowded and poverty-stricken townships, disaffection and militancy in the townships and advancing trade unions.

Industrialization, which enabled whites to live off the exploitation of Black labor, created the very conditions that in the end would be the undoing of white supremacy. The insatiable demand of whites for western-style standards of living and material comforts, created a dependency on the Black labor that made such material abundance possible.

Some Afrikaner nationalists perceived the incongruity between this growing white dependence on lack labor and political segregation. Their solution in retrospect ruminations in an ivory tower was to "extricate" Black labor from white areas.

In 1947, the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs (SABRA) was created at the instigation of the Broederbond to undertake a 'scientific' study of the country's racial policies. It provided the intellectuals underpinnings of apartheid. Its analysis of the racial problem was one with which the ANC would probably have wholeheartedly agreed. The difference lay in the contextual frameworks each would bring to the analysis. Afrikaners used the framework that advanced continuing white supremacy as its strategic goal. Blacks advanced the goal of a South Africa that acknowledged that all South Africans, no matter what their colour, were equal, and were entitled, therefore, to the same rights under the law. The former was rooted in the 19th century racial concepts of colonialism and imperialism, the latter with the emerging human rights culture that emerged after WW11 and enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

A summary of SABRA"s findings:

The greater the whites economic dependence on African labor, the greater the power of the African working class to endanger white economic prosperity by withholding its labour power. The 1940s had already demonstrated the substantial powers of African trade unionism. It would be both unfair and impossible, it was argued, to withhold full trade union rights from Africans indefinitely, and once they were conferred, the privileged position of the white worker would be toppled. Unless white dependence on African labour was diminished, political rights for Africans in white areas were likewise a matter of time. SABRA argued that 'economic' integration' entailed that Africans were de facto a permanent part of the country's population in their capacity of workers in residence. The denial of the vote to these Africans would not only be "immoral," it would become increasingly the target of more vociferous and powerful African opposition. As the economic bargaining strengths, standards of living and levels of education of urban Africans grew, so too would their political expectations and powers. The edifice of white supremacy was thus destined to fall as long as it was premised on 'economic integration.

Apartheid as a solution for the preservation of white supremacy would necessitate segregation on all fronts economic as well as political, territorial, social, cultural and educational. There could be no half measures in which whites might enjoy political supremacy without foregoing access to an abundant supply of African labor.

Of course, Afrikaners were not prepared to give up their African labor. And the task was impossible. Apartheid, as implemented over the following 40 years tried to juggle with the basic issues starkly, almost presciently, outlined in SABRA"s analysis. But, at best, the NP enmeshed itself in half measures, and the consequences of those half measures would devastate South Africa for almost half a century.


Once elected with less than 50% of the vote but securing a majority of parliamentary because of the way in which constituencies were delimited, the NP began to implement apartheid across the board, a party of anachronism, positing the choices for the future of the Afrikaner between actual domination by English- speaking whites, on the one hand, and the threat of domination by the African majority on the other. Some social theorists argue that the NP used apartheid to assert Afrikaner identity, but that underlying its insistence on protecting the political and economic superiority of Afrikaners were lingering fears of vulnerability. Others say 'hogwash,' and simply ascribe NP policies to unmitigated racism.

Between 1948 and 1958, the basic legal infrastructure of apartheid was created: The Asiatic law Amendment Act (1949) abrogating legislation that would have granted Transvaal and Natal Indians the right to elect Whites to represent them in parliament and for Natal Indians to represent themselves in the provincial council; The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949); The Population Registration Act (1950), which divided all South Africans into four racial groups white, African (Bantu), Coloured, and Indian; The Group Area Act (1950) dividing urban areas into racially segregated zones 'where members of one specific race alone could live and work'; The Suppression of Communism Act (1950); The Bantu Authorities Act (1951) purported to restructure government of the reserves on more traditional lines, but became a vehicle for the government to either appoint or co opt chiefs with substantial rewards who would I enforce government policy. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act (1951) allowed the government to move Africans off public or private land and to establish resettlement camps which 'squatters' could be confined to. The Native Laws Amendment Act (1952) limited the rights of Africans to live in urban areas. No non-White could remain in a White residential area for more than seventy-two hours without the proper work permit, but the burden of proof over how long they had been there rested with the natives. Abolition of passes & Coordination of Doc's Act (1952), which abolished pass books and replaced them with 'reference books' requiring non-Whites to carry a reference book giving the details of their racial classification, place of legal residence, their current work status, and permission for them to be in a place other than their legal residence, were further refined and extended. At one point an arrest for violation of the Pass Laws was made every three minutes; the Bantu Education Act (1953) mandated that education foe Africans would be in their mother tongue. Blacks were not to aspire to positions in society other than those determined by the government and thus education for such positions was deemed sufficient; The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953), which sought to create separate social environments for Whites and other population groups.

In 1948, 'Whites Only' or "Blankes Alleen' (Blacks Only) signs began to adorn everything taxis, buses, hearses, ambulances, park benches, trains, elevators, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, hotels, schools, universities. However a court ruled that "segregation was not lawful if public facilities for different racial groups were not equal (as in waiting rooms at railroads stations), Parliament passed" the separate amenities act to rectify the situation. And thus is inequality legislated.

The NP nationalized key industries, "Afrikanerized" the civil service, expanded the role of the state, built a massive bureaucracy, and secured the prominence in every sphere of the volk thus establishing itself as the unopposed party of Afrikaner nationalism. Its hegemony was absolute. And its thoroughness and expeditious programs for economic development met with the uncritical approval of the World Bank, which rewarded its tenacity. After a fact finding mission to South Africa in 1950, the Bank's vice President, Robert Gardner, reported that "the mission found South Africa a fine, strong country of fine people and the loan would be an excellent banking proposition. The mission has been impressed by the variety of South Africa's industrial development credit standingand other sources of capital."

In the 1953 general election, the NP obtained an outright majority of the votes.


During WW11, the ANC fully supported the government's participation in the war on the side of the allies and discouraged union actions and industrial strikes. On one occasion, Dr. Xuma, the President - general of the ANC, wrote to General Smuts, the Prime Minister, to apologize for strike actions Blacks had engaged in. "We are anxious not to embarrass the government, he wrote," We humbly and respectfully request the Prime Minister to receive a deputation from the ANC and CNETU (Council of Non European Trade Unions) to assist you toward settlement of recent strikes and prevention of future strikes."

In 1946 between 50,000 and 100,000 African workers in the mines went on strike, which the state put down violently. Afterwards, most of the members of the Central committee of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) were arrested and charged with instigating the strike. The ANC was at this point not the problem to the government --organized Black labor was, and would become increasingly so, as the economy swallowed supplies of Black workers.

The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) rescued the ANC from irrelevance, perhaps even oblivion. In the post war years, the ANCYL, with a new crop of new leaders Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo provided the movement with a new sense of direction and propose and a sense of urgency when the NP took over the reins of government. It provided definition: the ANC as an African nationalist liberation movement. The ideological orientation was neither socialist nor capitalist. The liberation of the people would constitute the sole focus of the organization; the enemy was the colonial/imperial invader. The Youth League set out its vision in its 1944 Manifesto: For the African, "communal contentment is the absolute measure of values." "The goal of all our struggles is Africanism;" "the national liberation of Africans will be achieved by Africans themselves;" All Africans from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and Indian oceans "must speak with one voice."

The ANC adopted the ANCYL"s "Programme of Action" at the ANC's annual conference in 1949 and Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu were catapulted into key leadership positions. The emphasis would be on seeking "national freedom," and "self determination." It called for the 'direct representation in all governing bodies if the country' and 'the abolition of all differential institutions or bodies created for Africans.' Breaking with the past it called for mass mobilization, boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation to achieve its demands.

After the dissolution of the CPSA, following passage of the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), and its restitution in secret as the South African Communist Party (SACP), the party and the ANC began to work more closely and African members of the SACP became influential members of the National executive of the ANC. The CPSA adopted a two-stage strategy of struggle. It asserted the primacy of 'revolutionary nationalism" over socialism. Class struggle was subordinated to the imperative to build a broad nationalist coalition to achieve the primary objective of national liberation.

Two competing nationalisms faced each other in the terrain of struggle: Afrikaner nationalism with its iron grips on the instruments of state power and African nationalism with its moral authority and readiness to embark on wide scale campaigns of mass mobilization, and civil disobedience, albeit with a commitment to non-violence. Afrikaner nationalism was shaped by its ideology of exclusivity, African nationalism by its ideology of inclusivity.

The Suppression of Communism Act also introduced a new form of imprisonment what was often referred to as "walking imprisonment." A "banning" order usually prevented a person from attending any meeting or 'gathering of a particular nature" at any time or specific time periods, setting foot in airports, harbors, educational institutional institutions, newspaper or publisher's office; writing anything for publication; leaving the specifically defined area a person was confined to; being quoted in a paper. In addition a banned person usually had to report to the local police station once or twice a week, resign from any public body or office or organization specified by the minister, remain at home fro 6 pm to 6am every day and from 6pm on Friday to 6 am on Monday. A person in his home could not meet with more than one other person. In the early fifties banning orders ere usually issued for two years, later for five. All could be renewed.7

Banning became one of the government's favorite instruments of repression. To ban a person required no proof of any wrongdoing, no proof of anything; the minister simply ordered your banning and that was it. It removed people from bodies opposing apartheid, ensuring their inability to participate in political life, if necessary permanently.

In 1952, the ANC embarked on its Defiance Campaign. Although it did not achieve any of its demands, membership of the ANC swelled, and at the end of the year it had some 100,000 members and could for the first time call itself, with some legitimacy, a mass-based organization. But a year later when Bantu education was being introduced the ANC equivocated, refusing to authorize a stay-away from schools. Of all campaigns the ANC conducted in the nineteen fifties the campaign of opposition to the new school measures was "the most poorly-planned, the most confused and, for Africans generally, the most confusing.'

In 1953, The Congress Alliance was established. It included the ANC, the Congress of Democrats (whites), the South African Coloured Organization (Coloureds), the south African Indian congress (Indians), the South African congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and the predominantly white federation of South African Women (FSAW). A number of dissenting members of the ANC, who believed that the Alliance undermined the concept of African nationalism, left and formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a movement advocating a "pure" African nationalism, under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe.

In 1955, the Alliance drew up the Freedom Charter,8 setting out the goals and aspirations of the liberation movement. With time the Freedom Charter became the bible of the movement; its provisions were recited as the writ of liberation expressing the "will of the people." Although this is open to some debate, the constant coupling of the two made them indistinguishable and hence accepted as such. The Freedom Charter was adopted by the ANC as its primary political and economic program, although its economic components were little more than vague statements of intent and thus capable of being interpreted to reflect one's political proclivities. It deftly separated national liberation from social liberation. Rather than being ideological, ideology was absent. Thus it was sufficiently elastic that it could be stretched in a number of ideological directions simultaneously without snapping. The clause that the "people shall share in the country's wealth' was interpreted in a number of ways. The apartheid state, unions, socialists, Black workers and the unemployed believed that the clause envisaged the appropriation of large scale capital enterprises to a new majority controlled state, others who were part of the national coalition because of their opposition to apartheid but supporters of private enterprise and capital in general were likely to view it in the context of a 'mixed economy' in which both the state and the private would act together to redistribute resources and redress apartheid's imbalances. (In the mid eighties much was made of the fact that four companies controlled 80% of the shares listed on the Johannesburg Stock exchange; the implied conclusion was that an ANC government would quickly "fix" that monopoly-capital concentration)

Ironically, Mandela himself was perhaps more clear than other ANC leaders on what the Charter was enunciating. "The Charter," he wrote, "does not contemplate [socialist] economic and political changes. Its declaration 'The people shall govern' visualizes the transfer of power not to any single social class but to all the people of the country, be they workers, peasants, professionals, or petty bourgeoisie." Nevertheless, the close association between the ANC and the SACP fed the belief that the Freedom Charter was doublespeak for a socialist society, beliefs the SACP did little to discourage.

Throughout the 1950s, there were a plethora of boycotts and stayaways, public demonstrations, anti-pass activities, some rural up risings, but much of it was noticeable for the absence of an ANC presence than for its presence. In rural areas, peasant resistance to government policies, mostly concerning land issue, was ongoing. Because the uprisings were local, did not come under any organizational rubric, and were usually put down by the police in short order. Rural resistance went largely unnoticed.

The Pondoland revolt in the late sixties, however, was different. It took the government the better part of four years to bring the rebellion under control. In June 960, after three years of sporadic but sustained resistance, the government resorted to the use of aircraft and mobile armored units to crush the rebels. Between eleven and thirty Africans were killed.

Resistance also came from other sources. When women were required to carry pass books in 1956, they, too, embarked on a campaign of protest, burning the pass books, holding public demonstrations and marching some 20,000 of all colors under the banner of the FSAW -- on Pretoria, where they gathered outside Union Buildings, sang 'Nkosi Sikelel'I Afrika', dispersed, and went home. The Black Sash an all white women's movement was formed and for forty years worked effectively and courageously to help Blacks to navigate the tug of the treacherous undercurrents of apartheid legislation that threatened to pull them under.

Again the government came to the rescue of the ANC. Judging by its actions one would think that that it saw more threat in any lull in opposition to its policies than in opposition. The latter was visible and could be confronted and dealt with using the usual measures; the former only suggested that clandestine conspiracies were being planned to overthrow the state, induced a higher sense of threat, and a greater need to impose deal even more efficaciously with the presumed threat. In 1956 it arrested over 156 leaders of every race and political disposition that had voiced opposition to the unending stream of increasingly stringent apartheid laws and charged them with treason. Among the accused were the ANC luminaries Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.

Despite the arrests and the trial (The Treason Trial) all of the accused were granted bail the ANC decided to support the white parliamentary opposition parties in the 1958 all-white elections. It still believed that if it could woo white liberal support to its side, a still broader Alliance coalition with white liberal and middle class support would force the government to come to grips with the racial question.

Retrospectively, recourse to questioning the tactics and strategy of the ANC is easy and worthless. Events and reactions to them must always be contextualized and the ANC's adherence to non-violence, eschewing of mass militancy are products of the conservatism that was the hallmark of African society. The ANC was not a revolutionary organization, it was reformist. It did not want to overthrow the system; it wanted to become part of it.

The trial dragged on for four years and ended with all being acquitted. It provided, however, an occasion for Mandela to showcase his skills, the breath of his talents, his capacity to better the best prosecutorial teams the state could muster, and, above all, his charismatic appeal to the masses.

The people had found their Moses.

SOURCES: Rodney Davenport & Christopher Saunders, "South Africa: A Modern History" (New York: St. Martin's Press 2000) Deborah Posel, The Meaning of Apartheid before 1948 in "Segregation and Apartheid (eds.) William Beinart and Saul Dubow (Routledge: London and New York1995)'; Frank Welsh, "A History South Africa," (Harper Collins: New York 2000); The Growth of Afrikaner Identity in "A History of South Africa" pp. 189-205; Izwi Labantu, 16/02/1909; quoted in A. Odendaal, "Vukani Bantu! The Beginnings of Black Protest Politics in South Africa to 1910" (David Phillip, Cape Town, 1984); Nelson Mandela, "The Struggle is my Life" (International Defence and Aid Fund: London 1990); Ministry of Education, "Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa" (HSRC Press: Cape Town 2004); "Reader's Digest: Illustrated History of South Africa" (The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York 1990) Omond, Roger, "The Apartheid Handbook: A Guide to South Africa's Everyday Racial Policies," (Penguin Books: Johannesburg)'; Dr. Van Zyl slabbert, a three-part talk as the Tanner Lecturer, Brasenose College, Oxford, October/November 1987. Lecture 2: The Dynamics of Reform: Co-optive Domination -- Sharing Power Without Losing Any." IDASA, Occasional Papers, No. 8 Omond, Roger, "The Apartheid Handbook: A Guide to South Africa's Everyday Racial Policies," (Penguin Books: Johannesburg 19XX)

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